J-Source's new ethics editor on doing the right thing
Do the right thing.
It sounds so simple, but like the 1989 Spike Lee movie from which this phrase came, doing the right thing is not always straightforward. And those twists and turns, to me, are what ethics is all about.
It’s the grey areas that are the most fertile:
How as a journalist do you do right by the children you want to name and identify in a story that makes clear their family subsists well below the poverty line?
How do you do right by the person charged with sexual assault by an accuser who is also known to police?
What does the right thing entail for ethical coverage of a trial of a First Nations person who swears on an eagle feather rather than a bible, and whose band members drum outside the courtroom despite warnings from the judge to stop or be forcibly removed?
For me, the argument in terms of how to cover any of these stories is not simply one about accuracy, but rather about justice. I firmly believe that the role of reporters in a democracy is to tell accurate, complete and thoughtful stories to and about their communities so that citizens can be informed about and participate in the larger conversations that affect their lives.
While I’m not advocating reading any heavy theory like that penned by academic and philosopher Jurgen Habermas, he does suggest—and rightly so--that the press has an obligation fully to inform members of the public so that they themselves can participate knowledgeably in the democratic process.
But what does accuracy or completeness mean when the stories themselves spill beyond the space or format requirements of their media? What does that mean, then, when one of the requirements of this ‘not-so-new’ journalism is tweeting updates from a courtroom? It seems reasonable to probe whether truth can be conveyed in 140 characters and the corollary, whether it’s ethical to try.
Creating stories that heighten understanding between, among and within communities is crucial. A recent piece titled “Babel: Accents in the Workplace” on CBC Radio One suggested that the number of people who speak English as their first language is declining. We are living in increasingly linguistically and culturally diverse surroundings, so in some senses, journalists now also have to be cultural translators—working hard to be sure that the nuances inherent in their work are fair and sensitive.
While I’ve always appreciated the Poynter Institute’s approach that offers things like the 10 Rules for when it’s ok to use deception, and in fact, I’ve employed those very rules when teaching an ethics class, I hope that here on the ethics pages of J-source, we can also probe what sorts of journalistic approaches best convey the larger truths of our communities.
For example, the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of Tori Stafford was framed in ways that were reminiscent of the classic versions of Little Red Riding Hood. Borrowed from the early versions of this fairy tale, issues of parental and even communal responsibility as well as the existence of evil just off the well-trodden path had resonance for some of the real-life details. But what did this unacknowledged frame suggest about Tori’s mother in particular? How did this story shape implicate her brother and others at Tori’s school? And were those representations fair and just?
For me, ethics is a larger field of study (and practice) than might be the common conception and I’d like to enlarge our working definition. It’s my plan to offer this space in J-Source for provocative and thoughtful pieces about what ‘doing the right thing’ means in today’s highly competitive, globalised, and technologically changing world.
Many of the issues that are relevant here in Canada are being explored in England at the ongoing Leveson Inquiry into the ethics and practices of the British press. The day is past when the only thing on the table is whether the story will sell; clearly the stories about 13-year-old murdered British schoolgirl Milly Dowler sold. But once the facts of how the British press collected this and other information—the phone hacking scandal and the like—the public was outraged.
As the public reaction to this inquiry demonstrated, in England, “giving them what they want” is really not an option anymore. Instead, what’s being discussed is how best to enforce ethical practices so that the British media industry does not become one controlled by government legislation.
Here at home we would do well to keep apprised of those discussions because they have global implications.
I want to continue to use ethics pieces that have a practical bent—like where might you find guidelines about covering suicide, or if you are the first to arrive at an accident scene, should you tweet your impressions before you help the survivors—and I am also interested in the larger issues behind some of the more obviously problematic ones.
As the new ethics editor for J-source, I look forward to engaging your own ideas and perspectives and hope we can keep this a lively forum for prodding or inspiring us to kinder, better and ever more thoughtful media work.
Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately spelled Tori Stafford's name as "Tory." We apologise for the error.